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Electric Vehicles

The Best Part of an EV Is When You’re Not Driving

That enormous battery can do a lot more than propel your car down the road.

Dog in an EV.
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Many new cars and trucks come with modes to optimize driving. Anyone who’s watched an episode of Top Gear has seen the hosts extoll the virtues of sport mode, which makes steering tighter and more responsive, or off-road mode, which allows a 4X4 to better cross muddy terrain.

Electric vehicles have their own performance modes, like Tesla’s “launch control” that sends the Model S screaming off the starting line. But some of the most interesting things an electric car can do happen when it’s sitting still. Because the giant battery along the bottom of an EV can do a lot more than propel the car down the road, EV-makers have realized they can use this reserve of electricity to create quality-of-life features that wouldn’t be possible in gasoline cars.

There used to be a set of no-nos when it came to sitting in the car. Running the air conditioner, listening to music, or leaving the headlights on without the motor running would tax the boxy 12-volt battery found under the hood. Overdo it and you might need to talk a stranger into a jump-start, something I learned the hard way when I was a pre-teen and depleted the battery in my parents’ Pontiac minivan waiting for them to escape a meeting.

Cars got better about this issue as the years went by, but electric vehicles nearly negate the problem entirely. Consider the modern sin of leaving one’s pets behind. States like California have laws against leaving an animal unattended in a hot car, and for good reason — without ventilation, a vehicle interior can get even hotter than the outside air. Combustion cars can’t (or shouldn’t) keep the air conditioner on without also running the engine, which prevents you from keeping the pooch nice and cool.

Not so in the EV age. Rivian and Tesla both have pet modes that will use the battery’s electricity to run climate control while you run into Walgreens while Walter the terrier stays behind. Both brands display a cheery cartoon dog on the large center touchscreen, alongside a message to would-be Good Samaritans that the cabin is holding a pleasing and pleasant temperature.

Pet modes come with safeguards. They can’t be used if the battery is too low, for example, to prevent a scenario in which the car runs out of juice and can no longer cool the dog. Still, they can’t guard against the fact that this new technology runs against a societal stigma against leaving pets in the car. (I keep paper signs in my Model 3 that read “AC ON, DOG IS FINE” to dissuade passersby from breaking a window or calling the authorities.)

Humankind benefits from EV climate features, too. Leaving the heat or AC on indefinitely bleeds a few miles of range from the battery, but doesn’t endanger your ability to get the car started again. You could even sleep in the comfort of a climate-controlled room on wheels (or park cranky kids in front of Encanto on the touchscreen). Tesla offers Camp Mode for this very purpose, promising that an entire night uses only about 10 percent of the battery. Rivian’s is especially high-tech: It tweaks the truck's suspension to keep it level on uneven ground, and allows owners to shine their headlights to illuminate the campsite, a definite battery-killer in a combustion car.

These applications are mere extensions of the familiar, giving traditional car accessories a lot more staying power. The transformative potential of driving a battery on wheels would be the ability to use that electricity supply for, well, anything you want.

The technical name is bidirectional, or two-way, charging. The Ford F-150 Lightning includes this feature, and its advertising touts that the electric truck can plug into your home to provide days of backup power in the event of a blackout. Tesla’s initial round of Cybertruck marketing proclaimed that the steel beast would become the mobile heart of a jobsite, with power tools running on battery power thanks to an array of outlets on the vehicle’s exterior.

Two-way charging makes an EV more technically complex, since the direct current (DC) power the car uses would need to be transformed back into alternating current (AC) to run other applications. But the possibilities are enticing for the electric vehicle owner. EVs that remain plugged in while not in use could feed energy back onto the electrical grid, just as homes with solar panels can pass on excess energy. Such a setup could help avoid blackouts by creating an alternative source of stored electricity — not to mention generate income for EV owners who are technically selling power back to the grid.

It is coming, if slowly. Tesla, having resisted bidirectional, said this spring that it would adopt the technology within a couple of years. Other automakers have introduced some limited versions of it.

Someday soon, then, your car, flashlight, and backup generator may be one and the same.

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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Where Should I Donate on Giving Tuesday?

Want to use your gifts to help the climate? Here’s where seven climate advocates are donating.

Earth on a pile of money.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Fighting for clean air and water. Accelerating the green energy transition. Centering economic and racial justice. Engaging future generations of climate innovators.

Nonprofits across the U.S. and around the world are tackling the problem of climate change in zillions of different ways. In recognition of the scope of their work, we at Heatmap are starting a new tradition for Giving Tuesday — asking some of the most prominent voices in the climate space where they would donate this year.

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